On 3 February 1900 Joyce’s review of Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken was accepted for the Fortnightly Review.
Henrik Ibsen was the towering figure of late nineteenth-century European drama, yet Joyce’s enthusiasm for Ibsen seems to date only from his early undergraduate years. Stanislaus Joyce, writing many years later, recalled the day on which a copy of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, in the English translation by William Archer, arrived from the publishers Heinemann: “a slim volume in yellow paper covers with a vignette of Hilde Wangel…on the outside. It was an event; and my brother stayed up that night to read the play. In the morning…the whole room bore witness that he had read late into the night…”
Joyce was not alone in his estimation of Ibsen: George Moore, Edward Martyn and WB Yeats, the leading figures of the new Irish theatre, were all familiar with Ibsen from productions of his plays on the London stage. Nonetheless, Ibsen was not considered fit reading for Catholics at the time. Joyce’s mother, concerned at what her son was reading, asked him what kind of writer Ibsen was, and Joyce gave her some of Ibsen’s works to read. Even John Joyce read some of Ibsen’s League of Youth before he decided it was “safely boring.”
On 10 January 1900 Joyce finished a paper on Ibsen, ‘Drama and Life,’ which he was to deliver to University College Dublin’s Literary and Historical Society. Revd William Delaney, President of the University, initially refused permission for it to be given, but Joyce offered him Ibsen’s works to read and eventually Delaney allowed the paper to be given. In the meantime, Joyce had written to WL Courtney, editor of the prestigious Fortnightly Review in London, to ask if he would be interested in a general article on Ibsen’s work. Courtney’s reply arrived on 20 January, the day Joyce was to deliver his paper. Courtney told him he would be interested in a review of Ibsen’s latest drama, When We Dead Awaken.
Joyce obtained a copy of the French translation of the play, and wrote his article based on this. Courtney, writing to Joyce on 3 February 1900, accepted the article, and asked only that Joyce cut out a derogatory reference to Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, and that he quote from the just-published English translation. Joyce made the changes requested and the article was published in the Fortnightly Review on 1 April 1900.
The appearance of Joyce’s first published article had an instant effect. As Ellmann puts it: “From now on Joyce was the man who had published the article in the Fortnightly and this confirmation of his good opinion of himself encouraged him to stand even more aloof.” Perhaps even more prestigious was the fact that Ibsen himself admired Joyce’s review. On 16 April 1900 Ibsen wrote to William Archer: “Jeg har også læst – eller stavet mig igennem en anmeldelse af Mr. James Joyce i ‘Fortnightly Review’, som er meget velvillig og som jeg ret skulde have lyst til at takke forfatteren for dersom jeg blot var sproget mægtig” (that he had read, or at least spelt his way through Joyce’s article for which he would like to thank the author if only he knew the language). Archer in turn wrote to Joyce on 23 April to convey Ibsen’s message, and Joyce responded to say that “the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life.”
Not only had the article been accepted, but Joyce was also paid twelve guineas for it. He gave his mother £1, and with the remainder he took his father to London where he called on WL Courtney, and on William Archer, who became one of Joyce’s earliest supporters.
Sources & Further Information:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kevin Barry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Tysdahl, Bjørn J: Joyce and Ibsen – A Study in Literary Influence, Oslo: Norwegian Universities Press, 1968.